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When I Realized I Had to Manage My Mental Illnesses, Not Eliminate Them

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Content Note (provided by author): Discussion of three mental illnesses/mental distress, discussion of thought and behavior patterns, feelings about self in relation to mental illness and mental illness as inherent and continuing part of self, discussion of therapy/doctors/treatment of mental illness and successes or lack thereof. Mentions of: death, violent crimes (in context of anxious thoughts), disease.

*This is only my feelings about my personal experience – I in no way think this can necessarily be generalized to anyone else. Everyone’s view of their own mental condition is individual to them and is equally valid.

I have anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. Phew, that sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? I used to think of these things as “add-ons.” To me, there was me + anxiety + OCD + depression. Obviously the way to deal with this situation was just to remove the last three, leaving me, perfectly happy and stress-free all on her own.

I got frustrated when doctors and therapists told me nothing would make the intrusive thoughts, worries and feelings go away completely or therapy was about learning to control and manage, rather than eradicate them. I didn’t understand. These thoughts shouldn’t be there. They were abnormal. They were wrong. They were making me sick. Surely, there ought to be some kind of magic bullet that would erase them? These thoughts were infecting my mind. Where were the mental antibiotics I so badly needed? I got annoyed when doctors told me they didn’t think diagnoses and labels for these problems were helpful. Of course, I needed a label! I didn’t want to be Me + “?” + “?” Who wants to be that?

Of course, progress in therapy was never satisfactory. I learned a lot about myself and my patterns of thinking. It was all interesting. I learned I think in black and white, I have issues about control, I can’t tolerate uncertainty and I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility for things. So, I just have to stop thinking in black and white, right? But that isn’t something you can just shed like a snakeskin. It’s deeply ingrained.

I was always upset in therapy. Counselors would tell me I had to learn to dismiss my worries about my grandparents dying if I didn’t tidy my room. I was told to reject the thoughts about the people I might fatally infect if I got on public transport with a cold or the people who I thought were dying or being murdered on the basis of nothing at all.

I thought: This can’t be right. If I really do this, if I really commit, I’m destroying a fundamental part of me. I don’t want to care less. I don’t want to worry less about other people. That’s not becoming healthy, but becoming selfish. It felt wrong to care less, to think less and to rein in my mood. So I could never really commit because I felt like I didn’t want to become the person therapy was going to turn me into, into just me. Who was just me? What was she like? What would she be like? Had she ever really existed?

It wasn’t until recently I started realizing that’s not how my mental illness works. For me (and it may be very different for other people), there isn’t this add-on. Anxiety, depression and OCD are enmeshed in my whole personality. They aren’t something I can just cut out, not without damaging a whole lot of me at the same time. Now this might sound a bit dire. So that’s it? I’m just stuck with them?

The thing is, I like myself (most of the time). I have a lot of really good qualities (if I do say so myself!). It has taken me this long to realize those good qualities are partially what mean I am disposed to anxiety and depression. Of course there are other factors involved, circumstantial, genetic and so on, but there is definitely a connection. In my personal, individual case, I don’t think I can have one without the other. There is no just me. She’s not real, and if she were, then she would not be very interesting.

Thinking this a few years ago, I would have absolutely despaired. Is this it, then? I just have a mental illness forever? It’s not that I always will be ill. It’s that I will always have these tendencies, and at different times, I will be more or less prone to slip into or resist them. Yes, I have days when I feel absolutely dreadful, but that’s how I’ve gotten better at writing. Writing is a really important part of my life because writing down my feelings was the only way I could hope to communicate the pain I was in. I love writing, but without those feelings, I had nothing interesting to say.

I have days when I feel completely flat, and don’t want to do anything. I also have days when I feel fantastic, when I am filled with this overwhelming love for the world and everyone in it, when I feel like I could take on Godzilla and defeat him just with the force of my smile. For every ugly day, there is a beautiful one. I don’t ever want to say goodbye to those.

I have days where I feel completely powerless. I have days when I feel like I have to be in control of everything and can’t deal with anything else. I’m also fascinated by power and control as academic concepts. I have been spending my days recently reading everything I can about mechanisms of power, such as the state, and books about psychiatry to try and understand more about the controlling concept of “normal.” This is another interest that is all the more profound because of my problems.

I have days where anxiety paralyzes me, when I feel responsible for every bad thing happening and simultaneously powerless to stop any of it. Then, I have days when I am inspired to pursue careers that will really help people, to look for volunteering and internships and jobs in NGOs and other organizations I really think can make a difference. My raison d’etre is given to me by trying my hardest to look out for other people. I am rewarded by true friendships with amazing people, whom I love dearly. Some days, I am a perfectionist. Other days, the same drive turns into ambition.

I am a person of extremes, of rigid categorizations, a “control freak,” obsessed with what the right thing to do is. Some days I want to fix everything and some days I feel like I’m going to hell in a handcart. I’ve come to see that this is OK, this is who I am, this is why I care about the things I care about, believe the things I believe, do the things I do. I don’t want to be just me. I want the things in my head, which sometimes can make me do slightly “crazy” things. Yes, sometimes I feel terrible and can’t quite live how I want to. However, I now see what everyone meant when they said, “Manage it. Don’t eliminate it.”

Time for a cheesy Disney reference: Elsa in “Frozengets better, not through getting rid of her ice-making powers. Instead, she learns to use the differences she has to make ice rinks and snow sculptures, rather than pointy spiky dangerous scary things and snowstorms. It’s not about getting rid of these ways of thinking. It’s about channeling them where they are useful to me, and trying, with the help of therapy, to train myself out of channeling them into the darker places in my mind.

I am not a person with three mental illnesses. I am a whole, complete person, with all my problems, whether I’m managing them or not. This is OK. Without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am, in the place where I am and have a lot of the things I value about myself. It feels like realizing this, after so long, is a step toward finding the peace I’ve been craving for so long. I’ll get there and not just a clean, sanitized, dulled down version of me, but the whole me, just as I am.

If you’re struggling with mental illness, here are some resources for support and detailing services you can access, including helplines. There is a lot of support out there. These are just a few examples.


This post originally appeared on shethinksthereforesheis.

Image via Thinkstock Images

Originally published: August 19, 2016
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